In Box Review: “Zero Dark Thirty”

I saw “Zero Dark Thirty” last night, the slightly fictionalized treatment of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden that led to the terrorist leader’s execution by US Navy SEALs in May 2011.

I can’t comment with much expertise on the factual accuracy of the film.

What I can say is that, as a document, it lays out a fairly unambiguous argument in favor of the use of torture — otherwise known as “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The movie lays particular claim to the notion that information forced from detainees slowly revealed a trail that led to one particular courier, who in turn led CIA operatives to the compound in Pakisatan where bin Laden was hiding.

There are also two particular points in the film where Bush-era approaches to the war on terror are embraced.

In one scene, CIA operatives lament the fact that the detainee program, with torture techniques at their disposal, is no longer operational.

They suggest that the lack of this program makes it difficult for them to lock down information that might confirm bin Laden’s whereabouts.

In another scene, a Bush-era operative — who has just been chided by a rather high-handed member of President Obama’s national security team — pushes for more aggressive action.

The movie is only subtly political. But anyone who thought this would be a paean to Barack Obama’s national security team was woefully misguided.

Obama never appears in the film, except in a clip of news video where he is arguing against torture.

There are also a couple of moments when CIA operatives appear to be moving cautiously because they feel burned by their errors in Iraq, where they mistakenly believed that US forces would find weapons of mass destruction.

Given those reservations, howerver, “Zero Dark Thirty” left me with what seemed a clear message from the filmmakers that, taken together, the Bush era team was correct to view the campaign following 9/11 as a “war on terror.”

The film strings together terrorist strikes around the world, giving the impression of a coordinated global jihadi campaign of frightening scope and capacity.

Parts of that narrative are, I think, factually debatable.Radical Islam is not the political equivalent of 1930s fascism. Iran is not Hitler’s Germany and Osama bin Laden was not Rommel.

But it’s still healthy for us to be reminded that small numbers of terrorists using fairly primitive weapons and tactics are capable of inflicting extraordinary damage.

And it’s worth continuing to debate what measures we as Americans are willing to take to reduce those risks.

The film is only intermittently entertaining.  There appears to be a deliberate effort to avoid James Bond-style theatrics.  Scenes of tension dissolve into muddle.  Drama evaporates in the moral morass of a complicated conflict.

Even the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound feels messy and awkward.

The SEAL team is good, but they’re operating in the real world, where doors jam and children get in the way, and curious people on the street mingle confusingly with people who might be actual terrorists.

This part, I think, is fairly admirable.  It would have been easy to romanticize the hunt for the man who led the 9/11 attacks.

Instead, the film argues for a world that is complex and deadly and morally fractured in ways that many Americans — on the right and the left — would prefer not to know about.

30 Comments on “In Box Review: “Zero Dark Thirty””

  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I haven’t seen the film, which is fiction, but from everything I have heard and what seems like common sense, torture isn’t effective.

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  2. Newt says:

    There hasn’t much of debate that I have seen since the movie came out on the allegations about the efficacy of enhanced interrogation in this matter. Over the past years I’ve seen arguments for both sides. I remember a book by an Arabic-speaking Lebanese-American FBI agent who had notable successes catching terrorists, and was pretty sure it was not effective, and, in fact, resulted in information that was false and led down blind alleys.

    Is there a consensus that these procedures actually resulted in finding bin Laden? It would be much easier to reject torture if it was conclusively shown that it was ineffective and/or counter-productive.

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  3. Pete Klein says:

    It’s a movie. Haven’t seen it and probably will not see it or any of the films up for academy awards but who knows.
    Most movies today are too darn long.
    As to interrogation, enhanced or otherwise, the skill required rests primarily in reading what is said and not said by the person being interrogated.
    The problem with torture is that it often gets a person to saying anything to stop the torture.
    Sometimes the most effective torture is mental rather than physical.
    I’m sure there are many tricks of the trade that have nothing to do with inflicting physical pain.
    Speaking of which, I have always felt Osama bin Laden inflicted more mental damage to the USA than physical.

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  4. Bob Falesch says:

    “…a world that is complex and deadly and morally fractured in ways that many Americans…would prefer not to know about.”

    You close with an important thought. I agree with you, although I’m not sure Americans have a corner on this annoying tendency. We do tend to go for high-contrast, binary formulations and eschew all the shades of gray that need confronting in order to understand the world.

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  5. Walker says:

    “…was pretty sure it was not effective, and, in fact, resulted in information that was false and led down blind alleys.”

    What ever happened to “truth serum”? It had the same failing, but seems way less morally compromised, and presumably had less tendency to leave those it was used on as bitter, implacable enemies.

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  6. The Original Larry says:

    It’s a war and the people in it generally do what they have to do to accomplish their objectives. If they don’t, they lose. Losers are war criminals; winners write the history books and are acclaimed as heroes. Winners and losers both suffer, just in different ways.

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  7. Peter Hahn says:

    What I have heard is that it is historically inaccurate in regards to torture. I think that came from a complaint from John McCain. Its a movie though. The key question is was it a good thriller?

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  8. Newt says:

    Yes, a movie. Would it have been as good, and financially successful, cinema if, instead of an enhance interrogation scene, the film showed clever interrogators extracting critical information for a suspect without using violence? Maybe that’s why the torture scene is in there.

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  9. Peter Hahn says:

    We shouldnt confuse fantasy with reality. I many people’s fantasy world, upright and resolute torturers save Timmy, trapped in the vault by the evil genius Dr. X. meanwhile valiant citizen Rambos with their assault weapons fight off Dr.X.s evil zombie troops who are threatening Timmy’s school.

    In real life, thats what the inquisition was like.

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  10. Paul says:

    You can debate the effectiveness of “torture” but the reality of course is that “torture” has and probably always will be used. I give the Bush administration some credit for being more transparent than we have been in the past regarding it. My guess is now that we have an “official ban” on these techniques from this administration that means we have reverted to the older less transparent strategy. The up side is now that we don’t use these techniques maybe the bad guys will stop training to deal with them like we do.

    Fictitious or not it is too bad that these kinds of operations and their details are not kept secret.

    Pretending that this kind of thing doesn’t go on seems pretty delusional. A kid on the playground has his head more out of the sand than some of these adults.

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  11. Mervel says:

    Torture is not new.

    I don’t know if it works or not to gather good information. I think sometimes it probably does.

    Not to get religious, but it is also defined as an intrinsic evil, something that for example no practicing Catholic should ever be part of or engage in.

    But anyway I don’t care if it yields good information or not, I don’t want my country doing it.

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  12. Mervel says:

    What is better, the rush of getting Osama Bin Laden, or the long term stain on our nation of becoming a nation known for and practicing torture?

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  13. Two Cents says:

    Re: Newt says: January 14, 2013 at 10:17 am

    it depends on the type of story one enjoys. that’s why there is a following for dirty harry, and one for columbo.

    time is what struck me as the critical pivot point. do we have time to coach the answer out, or is every second a risk.
    accuracy should always be questioned in either technique. but that’s my cautious nature.

    this is the old ” does the end justify the means” machievellian debate. another, no one answer type of question.

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  14. Mervel says:

    Once you go down the road you can’t easily come back.

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  15. Two Cents says:

    another day, another road.

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  16. Walker says:

    “Not to get religious, but it is also defined as an intrinsic evil, something that for example no practicing Catholic should ever be part of or engage in.

    But anyway I don’t care if it yields good information or not, I don’t want my country doing it.”

    Well this practicing atheist agrees with you 100%.

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  17. Peter Hahn says:

    “It’s wrong. It’s wrong. I know for a fact, not because of this report — my own knowledge — that waterboarding, torture, does not lead to reliable information … in any case — not this specific case — in any case,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a survivor of torture during his captivity during the Vietnam War.

    “I would argue that it’s not waterboarding that led to bin Laden’s demise,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee. “It was a lot of good intelligence-gathering from the Obama and Bush administrations, continuity of effort, holding people at Gitmo, putting the puzzle together over a long period of time — not torture.”
    More:
    http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/542919/12-12-19-sony-letter.pdf

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  18. dave says:

    Well that is a bummer to read. I told myself I would endure the pro-torture historical re-write part of the movie as long as it had some fun and exciting and over the top Navy SEAL action… but if that is all messy and awkward, then I guess I’ll just go see the Hobbit.

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  19. Paul says:

    My son and I saw Lincoln on Friday. See that if you haven’t.

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  20. Paul says:

    “holding people at Gitmo” Isn’t that torture?

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  21. Phil Brown says:

    I also saw the movie yesterday. I thought it could have been done better, but I was still engrossed, I think mainly because of its subject matter. If it were an entirely fictional film about a fictional terrorist, it would not have been nearly as I interesting.

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  22. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The real question is, what did the Canadians do that we are getting credit for in this movie?

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  23. Paul says:

    KLH, Argo was one of the best films I have seen in years. I hear you.

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  24. Pete Klein says:

    Torture wouldn’t be up for discussion if we had a “take no prisoners” policy when it comes to terrorists.
    I always remember a line from an early James Bond movie where, I think it was Goldfinger who said it, “No, Mr. Bond. I don’t expect you to talk. I expect you to die.”
    Of course James being James, figured a way out of his problem.

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  25. Paul says:

    So that is where Austin Powers got that line! My favorite is “apology accepted captain Needa”!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iwio208q3jY

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  26. myown says:

    Here is a review that questions what we have lost as a country by trying to justify the use of torture:

    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/zero-dark-thirty-is-osama-bin-ladens-last-victory-over-america-20130116

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  27. movieman says:

    I think everyone is missing the point of this movie. it is not about torture. the movie illustrates that war and the war on terror is dirty and we had to play dirty to find OBL. They are showing the torture to illustrate that. not to make any sort of statement in support of torture or bush-era tactics. i understand where the liberals are coming from here but sometimes we gotta accept the fact that doing horrible things that are wrong is the only way. i understand that it is misleading to show the toture leading to finding bin laden but the director had to make choices to move the story along. it wouldn’t work to show torture and then have it lead nowhere and it wouldnt make sense to not show torture. we needed it to lead somewhere in order for the plot to work. i think she DID make torture look viable but you know what. who cares. the movie is not about that. its about showing how america had to get its hands dirty to find OBL. we need to remember that this is a movie that is dramatized and not all cinematic choices made have to be over-analyzed for some sort of political statement. if you want to see a totally puppy-dog, glossed-over, sunny-day, happy-go-lucky, pat yourself on the back go-america movie. go see Lincoln. you will leave feeling like you personally ended slavery. go america!

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  28. Walker says:

    “…sometimes we gotta accept the fact that doing horrible things that are wrong is the only way.”

    If that’s true. Maybe it’s not true. Maybe sodium pentothal would have worked.

    “…she DID make torture look viable but you know what. who cares.”

    Well, I do. You don’t think America’s enemies find that our behavior in stuff like this plays right into their hands?

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  29. Two Cent says:

    maybe the world would realize that war is horrible and evil, and simply, that is why it is to be avoided.
    since we’re not there yet, maybe war is war is more accurate.
    maybe the world will realize, for now, we will meet what evil comes with the evil it takes to destroy it.
    maybe they will have to trust we will not perpetuate it.

    the movie could have pulled a hitchcock- i wasn’t shown the specifics, but i know janet leigh didn’t make it out of the shower.
    bigelow could have shown a door close, and water run from under it and down the hall…

    i spent most of the movie wondering about the cia agent in real life, if it was a composite or truley a real person as stated, and what a great dinner guest she would be.

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  30. movieman says:

    “maybe the world will realize, for now, we will meet what evil comes with the evil it takes to destroy it”
    agreed.

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